Tell me about your research at the NIDCR.
I’m using the salivary gland as a model system to study the role of the peripheral nervous system in organ formation.
Why the salivary gland?
The salivary gland is one of the few organs that can be grown outside the body, and it will recapitulate its normal growth. It also has a nerve supply residing on the gland itself that develops in parallel, making it an excellent model system to study the effect of the nerves on glandular growth.
How are things progressing?
Really well. When I arrived in Bethesda, my advisor had the beginnings to this project and I gave myself six months to generate enough data to write a K99 grant that would allow me to study the role of nerves in branching morphogenesis. That’s the three-dimensional branching process that developing epithelial tissue undergoes as it takes shape to form the lungs, kidneys, salivary glands, and other organs. Everything has worked out beautifully. I got the K99 grant funded. It’s a two-phase grant that helps experienced post docs transition to independent research careers. The grant consists of a K99 “mentor” phase while I’m conducting research with my NIDCR mentors and a subsequent R00 phase when I move on and become an independent investigator.
You came to NIH to learn to write a grant application? Some would say that’s not NIH’s strong suit.
Oh, that’s definitely not true. The K99 is one of the hardest grants to write because it’s usually your first grant writing experience. I had about three senior investigators here who frequently offered to review the text and give me advice. All have strong grant-writing backgrounds. The other thing is everyone here is constantly writing reports and grants for things like Gordon Conferences, and there are plenty of grant writing workshops. So, if you want to learn how to write a grant, you definitely can do it at NIDCR.
What’s your academic background?
I did my Ph.D. in Sydney, Australia in biomedical engineering.
Is this your first post-doc opportunity?
No, actually I came to the U.S. to work on a post doc at a university. My major project involved the characterization of a molecule known to function in development through the binding of growth promoting factors. This work also involved examining the effects of this protein on nervous system development, hence my interest in nerves. The work was fine in the short term; I liked being able to ask a research question and get an answer. But I needed something else. I needed a project that wove in exciting, cutting-edge science and I needed to develop my career as an independent researcher.
And that professional need steered you to NIH and the NIDCR intramural research program?
That’s right. I knew that to have a career in science, I needed to go to a laboratory or institution that specializes in career development. That made coming to NIDCR an easy decision. I work in NIDCR’s Laboratory of Cell and Developmental Biology, and my unit is led by Dr. Matthew Hoffman. What’s been nice is Matt gave me the cutting-edge project that I had been looking for, and we both realized from the start that it was high risk, but potentially had high impact. The ball’s really in my court to figure it out, and that’s perfect. I’m willing to put in the long hours and feel the metaphorical pain, because I know I’ll eventually come out on the other end.
And where is the other end professionally?
Two places. First, a high-profile paper. I knew that I’d need to devote the next two and a half to three years to write a major paper. With the help of the K99 grant that we just talked about, I’m in the process of assembling the data to write that paper. As Matt and I have discussed, the article will position me for a career in organogenesis research.
Secondly, I want to run my own laboratory when I leave NIH. That’s really important to me. However, I know that the leap from post doctoral fellow to independent researcher can be an enormous one. But NIH has been very helpful in that respect. I feel more prepared with every day to make the leap.
Well, it’s the overall environment. It’s a combination of good mentorship, great science, interesting peers, wonderful interactions, and outstanding teaching.
Let’s start with the mentorship.
Sure. I’d heard mixed reviews about the mentoring at NIH before I came to Bethesda. But, in my experience, the mentoring has been first rate. From the moment that I arrived in the laboratory, I’ve had not one but two mentors. Matt Hoffman is my first mentor, and then I also have a second mentor to turn to in a pinch. That doesn’t mean that everything just comes to you on a silver platter as an NIDCR post doc. You must be proactive and chase your opportunities. But if you do chase them, you will be rewarded.
What about being a young woman in science?
That’s actually a very good point. There are a number of successful female scientists at NIDCR. I’ve seen them firsthand publish some big papers and do really well for themselves. It’s truly inspiring. As a woman who is just getting started in science, you see that it can be done.
You mentioned interesting peers and wonderful interactions. Do you have many opportunities to collaborate with other NIDCR and NIH laboratories?
Oh absolutely. You collaborate with people on your floor. You collaborate with people in your building. You collaborate with people in other buildings. This person knows X, and that person has materials for Y. The intellectual and research resources at NIH are endless. In Australia, a place like NIH doesn’t exist, at least not with such a diversity of research disciplines in one place.
You also mentioned great science. What about the tools and technologies here to enable that great science?
They’re first rate. For example, I have easy access to a microscope facility that contains a two-photon confocal microscope as well as many other imaging technologies. Sometimes it’s difficult to see myself doing some of my current research without the resources at NIH. In fact, I think that will be one of the hardest parts about one day leaving NIH. Having access to the equipment resources is a real advantage.
So, bottom line, do you feel as though your career is on track?
Absolutely. In Australia, I intended to go to medical school, but I switched tracks to get my Ph.D. The reason was I knew that the life of a scientist would give me the intellectual stimulation that I needed. The hard part was figuring out how to get there. There’s this tremendous gap between the idea and reality. At NIDCR, the gap has been progressively filled and in a very meaningful way. You know, I had never considered studying the salivary glands. But I say quite contentedly, here I am. There are so many unanswered questions in the study of organ development and their regeneration, and there is so much work to do. The future is bright.
Thanks for talking about your NIDCR post doc.